Search dogs deployed to Havana to find survivors as death toll in hotel blast rises

On Sunday, search teams with dogs scoured the ruins of a luxury hotel in the Cuban capital for survivors of a devastating explosion, while officials raised the known death toll to 30.

Hotel Saratoga, a 96-room five-star hotel in Old Havana, was preparing to reopen after being closed for two years when an apparent gas leak ignited, blowing the exterior walls onto the busy streets in the middle morning one block from the nation’s capitol building on Friday.

On Sunday, Cuban authorities raised the known death toll to 30 from 27 even as crews continued to search for victims buried under piles of broken concrete. Several nearby structures were also damaged, including the historic Martí Theater and Calvary Baptist Church, the denomination’s headquarters in western Cuba.

The church said on its Facebook page that the building suffered “extensive structural damage, with several collapsed or cracked walls and columns”. [and] the ceiling partially collapsed,” although no church workers were injured.

The Health Ministry said 84 people were injured in Friday’s blast. Among the dead are four minors, a pregnant woman and a Spanish tourist, whose companion was seriously injured.

Rescuers remove debris from the ruins of the Saratoga Hotel on Saturday. (Yamil Lage/AFP/Getty Images)

The ministry also released the names of those who died on Sunday. Some 24 people remained hospitalized.

On Saturday, a representative of Grupo de Turismo Gaviota SA, which owns the hotel, said 13 of its employees were still missing. Havana Governor Reinaldo García Zapata said late Saturday that 19 families had reported loved ones missing and rescue efforts would continue.

Authorities said the cause of the explosion was still under investigation, but believed it was caused by a gas leak. A large crane hoisted a charred tanker truck out of the rubble on Saturday.

The burials of the victims have begun, according to municipal authorities. But some were still waiting for news of missing friends and relatives.

“We hope that something will be known about my cousin’s mother,” Angela Acosta told The Associated Press near the site of the explosion. His relative, Maria de la Concepcion Alard, lived in an apartment adjacent to the hotel with a black Labrador, which was rescued along with another dog on Sunday.

On Saturday, rescuers scour the rubble for survivors. (Yamil Lage/AFP/Getty Images)

Crews worked to clear the streets around the hotel and by Saturday evening heavy foot traffic had resumed.

“There are mothers who are without their children today,” Matha Verde, a manicurist who strolled near Saratoga, said Sunday during the celebration of Mother’s Day in Cuba. She says she told women who lost their sons or daughters in the blast that they “have to keep going”.

The woes of tourism

The blast added to the woes of a crucial tourism industry that had been stifled by the coronavirus pandemic as well as tougher sanctions imposed by former US President Donald Trump and the continued Biden administration. These sanctions limited visits by American tourists to the islands and restricted remittances from Cubans in the United States to their families in Cuba.

Tourism had started to pick up earlier this year, but the war in Ukraine deflated a boom in Russian visitors, who made up nearly a third of tourists who arrived in Cuba last year.

The Saratoga, which had been closed during the pandemic, was one of Havana’s elite accommodations, often hosting visiting VIPs and celebrities.

Some attention in Cuba has begun to turn to an official visit by Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who arrived on Saturday evening and met with Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel on Sunday. López Obrador was wrapping up a five-country tour that began in Central America.

Díaz-Canel visited Mexico during Independence Day celebrations last year. López Obrador recently spoke out against the US government’s apparent intention to exclude Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua from the Summit of the Americas it will host in Los Angeles in June.